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BOOK REVIEW: The Emotional Life of Your Brain

Reviewed by Joyce Alexander, RNP (retired)

As many of you who have read my articles and book reviews in the past know, I am fascinated by scientific studies of the brain and how our experiences affect both the anatomy and physiology of our brains. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other life events affect our brains in many ways. In their book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain, Richard J. Davidson, PhD, with Sharon Begley, reveal more about the power of the human brain.

DNA—the building blocks we get from our parents—except in the case of identical twins, is unique for each of us. Our DNA works by turning on or turning off different genes which we have inherited. For example, in people with the gene for Type II diabetes, the amount of weight they gain will turn on the gene for the “metabolic syndrome” of diabetes and heart disease. If they don’t gain the extra weight as an adult, the gene will not be activated. So our environment, how we eat, sleep, work, and, most importantly according to this book, how we think and our emotions, determine not only our physical health but our emotional health. The good news is, according to Dr. Davidson, we can control this. Let me repeat, we can control this.

Dr. Davidson has spent his entire very successful career, after graduating from Harvard, as a researcher and teacher at several prestigious universities. He taught about neurology of the brain, specifically studying emotions and how they work inside the brain, how our emotions influence our thinking, and vice versa.

Genes are not destiny

He stated, and then goes on to prove with scientific evidence, that “genes are not destiny.” Another analogy he gives is “Genes load the gun, but environment pulls the trigger.”

He gives wonderful examples of studies done proving that stroking and grooming in animal babies that are genetically programmed to be “neglectful” mothers totally overcomes the genetic tendency to be poor mothers, and vice versa.

While research, and in my case, my own family history, shows that there is definitely a genetic portion in psychopathology, this book should give hope to nurturing parents whose children have a psychopathic parent. By nurturing those children from infancy, the genetic tendency may be overcome and their child may grow up to have empathy and a conscience, which are lacking in the psychopaths.

Emotional Style

Dr. Davidson has termed his observations of people as “Emotional Style.” His studied infants, and then followed those children through age three, and then again at age nine. Using fMRI and EEGs, he showed that the environmental changes in the children’s lives can definitely change their “emotional styles.” A child who is shy at birth may become very outgoing as a nine year old, and vice versa. Children who suffer the death or serious illness of a parent may go from being very outgoing and resilient, to being shy and anxious.

The six “emotional styles” are Resilience, Outlook, Social Intuition, Self-Awareness, Sensitivity to Context, and Attention.

  • Resilience is our ability to overcome, to recover from an event.
  • Our Outlook ranges from negative to positive.
  • Social Intuition is our ability to discern a social situation from being puzzled, as someone who was autistic or had Aspergers might be, to someone who was very socially intuitive.
  • Self Awareness ranged from being opaque to very self aware.
  • Sensitivity to Context ranged from Tuned out to Tuned in.
  • Attention was from unfocused to totally focused.

Dr. Davidson also gives a true/false test for each of these emotional styles so that you can rate yourself on the scale and see where you fall. There is no pass/fail on any of these tests. But you can see where you might be on any of the emotional styles and where, if anywhere, you might want to work on yourself.

The tests were interesting to me. I saw just exactly where I knew I was lacking recently in my ability to focus my attention, due to a heavy stress load I am under right now because of my son’s up coming parole hearing.

Mind and body

Though the words he uses to define “Emotional Style” are a bit different from some other researchers I have read, the content of his research bears out what I know from my career and training in nursing. The mind and body are not two separate things; they are one. There is no dichotomy between the two. The Bible says, “as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Dr. Davidson’s research bears this out.

The “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” that Dr. Davidson gives as a way for us to reduce our stress, and to literally change our brain, is nothing new, but he shows how we can use it to heal ourselves. We can grow new attachments in the parts of the brain that focus on happiness and decrease the parts of our brain that are negative.

Dr. Davidson’s research into meditation has shown scientifically that it reduces stress, reduces physical and medical problems in the body.

I highly recommend this book to any LoveFraud reader as one that has some specific ways to help us cope and to recover from trauma, or even PTSD, induced by our tangling with a psychopath. This is not a “pop psychology” book, but one based on good, solid research and evidence about how we can take control of our emotions, our health, both mentally and physically. I had practiced a form of meditation similar to MBSR in years gone by, but stopped doing so. Because of this book, I have gone back to meditation and have found that I am already seeing very positive results in reducing my stress levels.

The Emotional Life of Your Brain is available on Amazon.com.

Guided Mindfulness Meditation Series, is available on Amazon.com.



7 Comments on "BOOK REVIEW: The Emotional Life of Your Brain"

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  1. Truthspeak says:

    Joyce, thank you for your insight on this work. One MORE to add to my list when I win the lottery! LOL

    I have SO much work to do on my Self, and the core of my frustration is my poverty – dammit. But, it is what it is and discussion of these insights and techniques to manage everything from PSTD to social anxiety is a BONUS.

    Thanks so much for this recommendation!

    Brightest blessings



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  2. Louise says:

    Oxy:

    I didn’t have time to read this since I am getting ready to leave my mom’s so I don’t know if this is contained in your article, but I learned how these traumas actually change the neural pathways in our brains. I was really amazed when I found this out. It explains how I have felt. It’s also scary to me that things that happen to us can actually change our brain.



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  3. Tea Light says:

    Thanks for this review Oxy,

    My counselor told me yesterday about Jon Kabat-Zinn at MIT, so I’ve been googling, to find information on mindfulness, here’s some links for anyone who is interested; this is an MIT linked e course:

    https://www.harvardpilgrim.org/portal/page?_pageid=1434,360741&_dad=portal&_schema=PORTAL

    Here’s Kabat-Zinn on youtube:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8wP7Co6Txds



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  4. Ox Drover says:

    Tea light, I just got in the mail yesterday a book by Jon and a CD series. Turned out the book had a CD in the back as well. I did the first guided meditation of the CD in the book and it was very well done. I am about 1/3 of the way through the book, it is an easy read and very well written I think.

    This meditation type is very similar to what I used to do and I intend to continue this as a daily part of my routine from here on in. According to the book reviewed above, in as little as 8 weeks of regular meditation there iis a MARKED IMPROVEMENT IN ATTENTION and that is something that I need!

    While as little as 30-35 years ago we were taught that the brain is “fixed” and doesn’t change or heal, now fMRIs are showing that the brain is “plastic” and CAN CHANGE both in form and chemistry which is an AMAZING thing.

    I also read in another study that even stroke patients who are paralyzed on one side of their bodies due to injuries in their brains can have some or all of their ability to use that side of their body restored by various therapies to retrain different parts of the brain to assume those duties formerly done by the injured parts.

    This is very exciting news both from a standpoint of PTSD as well.

    And heck, what is the “down” side of trying this? $20 for the book and CDs and 45 minutes per day of my time.



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  5. Truthspeak says:

    OxD, neato! Do post back on your experiences with this.

    I think you put it down in a nutshell: “And, heck, what is the ‘down’ side of trying this? $20 for the book and CDs and 45 minutes per day of my time.” That’s what recovery is about, I have come to realize: committment to SELF. How many times have I put aside time for other people and put my own health and well-being on the back burner (or, in the sink)? Throughout my lifetime, I never believed that I “deserved” or was “worthy of” devoting time to myself. Whether it was physical health and fitness, or emotional well-being, I never “allowed” myself to CARE about myself.

    Excellent point, OxD – making that committment to “Do Something” for yourself has really resonated with me, today. I’m on fire to “do something,” even if it’s wrong!

    Brightest blessings



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  6. Ox Drover says:

    Truthy, that’s the thing I have done. In my quest to DO SOMETHING abut Patrick’s parole I have NEGLECTED MYSELF. Which resulted in my stress level rising to EXPLOSIVE levels and my physical and emotional and mental well being took a nose dive in MANY DIFFERENT DIRECTIONS from lack of focus, becoming more depressed, sleep problems, infections, etc. etc. and finally I realized HEY GIRLFRIEND, YOU ARE DOING THIS TO YOURSELF BY NOT PUTTING YOURSELF FIRST. My own needs. So I had to step back and see what I could do. Just like when I had to go on the low sodium diet, and quit smoking, I had to DO what I KNEW to do.

    In the past I had learned and practiced meditation,, but had stopped doing it when I “got busy” and as I allowed the stress to get to me, I realized I needed to get myself back on track and DO what I knew was good for me. In reading the book I was reminded that there are GOOD REASONS to meditate and so I have restarted meditation, and added the CDs but you don’t have to have the CDs so the cost can be ZERO.

    Meditation is simply sitting or lying quietly and focusing your attention on your own body, your own breathing, in and out, and the sensations of your body parts. If a “fleeting thought” about something other than that floats by, just let it go, non judgmentally, and go back to focusing on your NOW, the MOMENT. It isn’t complex, and you can have some soothing music playing in the back ground if you wish, or Some records of natural sounds, or just listen to the sounds that are in your environment.



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  7. michaelleedwards says:

    I have been reading this site since 2008 when I came out of a four year relationship with a stealth sociopath. I have healed and have also been developing postural alignment tools to help myself and others overcome the negative feelings that come from the betrayal and mental abuse these relationships cause.
    When people have been hurt, they tend to slouch which affects the entire body. I use breathing techniques to activate our deep postural forces and functional movement yoga positions that do not strain the body. It is very difficult to feel depressed or anxious when your body in naturally aligned and you have no excess tension. When we are hurt or sad, our breast bone drops, there is pressure on our organs and also strain in our neck and back from the shortness of the front. Using the techniques I have innovated, in just a few minutes, you can activate your deep postural forces weakened from years of chair sitting or sadness or both. When aligned, it is easy to feel joy. One must express the body to show anger, depression etc. By engaging the body in positions that allow ease in alignment, less stress on the nerves, and decompression of the joints, many of us can move through the PTSD of these abusive relationships. Combine it with meditation and there is a powerful recipe for people healing fast. I would like to contribute an article to the site about the work and I have before and after photos too of people in their 60’s 70’s and even 80’s who look and feel years younger. aloha from Kauai http://www.yogalign.com



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